Risk a felony or a woman's life

A hospital says South Dakota's abortion ban requires doctors to take serious medical risks.

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published October 17, 2008 9:30AM (EDT)

Remember how the South Dakota abortion ban recently returned with backers alleging that this time it would make exceptions for the mother's health and cases of incest or rape? And remember how we laughed -- cynically , depressively -- at claims that it is "more moderate, more reasonable," and pointed out that, um, it could easily amount to a total abortion ban? Well, our cautionary chorus has a new member: South Dakota's Sanford Hospital.

In an internal memo, Sanford's lawyers performed an analysis of the proposed measure's impact on the hospital's abortion services. Then -- muahaha -- the memo was leaked. It concludes that the ban's exception for the health of the mother "imposes a standard that is not clearly defined." The memo continues: "For those instances where a pregnant woman faces uncertain but potentially very serious health risks, Initiated Measure 11 will require a physician to choose between possibly committing a felony or subjecting a pregnant woman to a higher degree of medical risk than what would otherwise be clinically desirable."

Here's the kicker: Sanford Hospital does not perform elective abortions. In other words, this unfavorable evaluation isn't aimed at defeating the ban and broadly protecting women's right to choose; if anything, it's a defense of the hospital's current policy, which already restricts abortion to cases where the mother's health is threatened. The document concludes that while the elaborate exceptions "on their face, appear to cover ... instances in which pregnancies are permitted to be terminated in accordance with Sanford policy, Initiated Measure 11, if approved, will have substantial legal implications for Sanford Health and its providers."

Note to the ban's supporters: You might want to adjust the sheep's clothing; your fur is showing.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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